There is not one type of friendship, Aristotle argues, but three. The highest type — the friendship of virtue — contributes most to our pursuit of the good life; but it is difficult to cultivate, and we may only achieve it a few times (if at all) in our lifetimes.
What does the good life look like for human beings? What does happiness mean, and how can we achieve it? What does virtue mean, and how can we exhibit it?
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle outlines his monumentally influential answers to these questions in his Nicomachean Ethics, his most studied work on ethics, which was written around 350 BCE (and features in our list of Aristotle’s best books).
Ultimately, Aristotle thinks the good life boils down to one thing: achieving eudaimonia, which is variously translated from Greek as ‘well-being’, ‘happiness’, ‘blessedness’, and in the context of the virtue ethics Aristotle endorsed, ‘human flourishing’.
The way we can achieve eudaimonia, Aristotle argues, is by habitually striving for excellence in all that we do.
In other words, happiness means excellent activity (and typically involves, Aristotle suggests, establishing a happy medium between excess and deficiency in our behavior and character, a recommendation we cover in more detail in our explainer on Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’).
While regulating our individual behavior to achieve excellence is perhaps the main ingredient in Aristotle’s recipe for happiness, he acknowledges that the good life wouldn’t mean as much without friendship. He writes in the Nicomachean Ethics:
We consider a friend to be one of the greatest of all good things, and friendlessness and solitude a very terrible thing, because the whole of life and voluntary interactions are with loved ones.
Of the Nicomachean Ethics’s ten sections, Aristotle dedicates two of them to friendship, perhaps indicating its importance in his vision of the good life. “Friendship is one of the most indispensable requirements of life,” he writes:
For no one would choose to live without friends but in possession of everything else that is good. Friends are of help to the young by protecting them from mistakes; to the elderly by looking after them and making up for their failing powers of action; to those in the prime of life, to help them in doing good things.
So important is friendship, Aristotle declares, that it may even trump justice when it comes promoting the good life for all:
When men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.
In his detailed analysis of friendship, Aristotle discusses its nature, principles, cultivation, how it contributes to the good life, when it is right to break off a friendship, and the part friendship plays in (and its resemblance to) various forms of political system.
One of his most enduring contributions to philosophical discussions on friendship is his distinction between its three kinds or levels. He prefaces this by stating:
Those who think there is only one [kind of friendship] because it admits of degrees have relied on an inadequate indication; for even things different in species admit of degree.
He then identifies the following ‘species’ of friendship:
Unsurprisingly, it is this final level — the friendship of virtue — that Aristotle lauds. While friendships of utility and pleasure have their place, it is the rare yet pure friendships of virtue that are the greatest contributors to the good life.
Virtuous friendship takes time — indeed, the length of a relationship indicates its stability — and requires effort on both sides.
“For perfect friendship you must get to know someone thoroughly,” Aristotle says, “and become intimate with them, which is a very difficult thing to do.” It involves honesty, acceptance, and selflessness. It is two equal parties coming together to forge a bond that provides mutual benefit, enjoyment, and appreciation over the course of a lifetime.
Aristotle thinks loving is more the essence of close friendship than being loved. To illustrate this, he compares the love we feel for close friends to that a mother feels for her child, reflecting on the “delight mothers take in loving”:
for some mothers hand over their children to be brought up, and so long as they know their fate they love them and do not seek to be loved in return (if they cannot have both), but seem to be satisfied if they seem them prospering; and they themselves love their children even if these owing to their ignorance them them nothing of a mother’s due.
Aristotle then connects this kind of selfless love — wishing the best for someone else for their sake — to the best kinds of friendship, writing:
Now since friendship depends more on loving, and it is those who love their friends that are praised, loving seems to be the characteristic virtue of friends, so that it is only those in whom this is found in due measure that are lasting friends, and only their friendship that endures.
Aristotle does not limit the formation of such friendships to non-relations; they can take place between spouses and family members, too — though he does add some qualifications for relationships that include inequalities, such as the parent-child relationship (suggesting such imbalances should be taken into consideration when reviewing the contributions of each party).
His one strict limitation is the number of virtuous friendships you can maintain. “To be a friend to many people in the way of perfect friendship is impossible,” he warns:
it is difficult to share intimately in the joys and sorrows of many people; for one may very likely be called upon to rejoice with one and to mourn with another at the same time.
It would be surprising if anyone could manage more than, say, five of such intensive relationships, meaning some close friends and even family members may be relegated to friendships of pleasure or even utility. So, choose your close friends wisely, and cultivate them virtuously.
Aristotle’s account of friendship underscores his view that excellent activity is central to a life well-lived, the highest good, and the most accurate definition of happiness.
In forming relationships, he urges us to go beyond utility and pleasure and seek to fulfill our human potential by connecting with others in the most sincere, meaningful, and prosperous way possible: by cultivating mutual love.
For mutually loving relationships — those in which two people strive to be the best they can be to each other and themselves — are not just key sources of happiness, Aristotle judges, but among the pinnacles of human achievement.
So a life of excellent activity, bolstered by excellent relationships, is very much a recipe for happiness for Aristotle.
What do you make of Aristotle’s analysis of friendship? Do you agree with the distinctions he makes? And what characteristics do the best relationships in your life exhibit?
If you’re looking to delve deeper into Aristotle’s teachings, you might enjoy our article on the ‘golden mean’, Aristotle’s guide to living excellently, as well as our quick explainer on why Aristotle thinks leisure defines us more than work.
You can also further explore Aristotle’s ethics and discuss your thoughts with others in our new course and community, How to Live a Good Life, which explores 7 of the world’s most influential philosophies for living — including Aristotelianism, Buddhism, and Existentialism. If you’re interested, consider learning more here: How to Live a Good Life (According to 7 of the World’s Wisest Philosophies).
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